Was the Father of Russian Lit a Brother?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Find out if Alexander Pushkin's African roots held meaning for him.

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Alexander Pushkin, by V.A. Tropinin, 1827, Pushkin Museum

Nepomnyashchy relates a fascinating story about one of Pushkin’s favorite possessions: On his desk sat “an inkstand featuring a black man leaning against an anchor and standing in front of two bales of cotton (made to hold ink). Accompanying it was a note [from his close friend, Pavel Nashchokin] stating: ‘I am sending you your ancestor with inkwells that open and that reveal him to be a farsighted person.’ Pushkin was extremely pleased with the gift, which he kept on his desk to the end of his days,” according to Under the Sky of My Africa. The note and the gift were clever puns, as Marial Iglesias explained to me: “It is based on a pun with ‘ink’ (chernila, in Russian) and ‘black’ (cherni, in Russian).” As Nepomnyashchy says, “it holds the ink (literally, the ‘black stuff’) for Pushkin to ply his trade and thus attests to the creativity of its owner.”

Because the word for “ink” in Russian has the same root as the word “black,” the gift brilliantly signifies both upon Pushkin’s blackness and his role as a writer who is also black. That inkstand, we might say, was Pushkin’s signifying sign of his black ancestry, centrally placed on his desk as a visible testament and reminder both of his African ancestry and, perhaps, of the irony that a man of recent African descent was playing such a seminal role in the creation of Russia’s national literary tradition. 

It won’t come as a surprise that Pushkin, in death, was frequently compared to Othello, Shakespeare’s famous black character whose jealousy led to his wife’s death — and to his own — or that racism accosted Pushkin in death as it did during his life. One of his classmates noted after his death that “In him was manifested all the ardor and sensuality of his African blood,” while another noted that he was frequently “Flaring up into a fury, with unbridled African passions (such as his mother’s ancestry), eternally absent-minded, eternally absorbed in his poetic dreams … ” writes Nepomnyashchy. And some Russian commentators have done their best to erase the significance of his blackness, or to claim that he had no interest in it at all, or that it was irrelevant to his genius.

But we know that this is not true, since Pushkin kept that token of his — and his great-grandfather’s — blackness on his writing desk.

And he would fight with his pen to protect his great-grandfather’s honor. In response to a vicious racist attack by a literary rival, Faddei Bulgarin casting aspersions on Gannibal’s status as a slave “bought … for a bottle of rum,” Pushkin, in a piece called “My Genealogy,” responded, “the blackamoor purchased cheaply grew up diligent, unpurchasable, a confidant to the tsar, and not a slave,” as Thomas J. Shaw related at length in Under the Sky of My Africa .

Fyodor Dostoevsky perhaps defined Pushkin’s unique status best, referring to what today we might call his “cultural hybridity”: “I state categorically that there has never been a poet with such universal responsiveness as Pushkin. It is not only a matter of responsiveness but also of its amazing depth, the reincarnation in his spirit of the spirit of foreign peoples, a reincarnation that is almost total and is therefore miraculous.” Pushkin’s literary legacy shines brightly, nearly two centuries after his tragic death, “under the sky of my Africa,” as he once put it so lyrically himself.

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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